A Story of the Twentieth Century.
BY IGNATIUS DONNELLY.
EDMUND BOISGILBERT, M.D.
Chicago, F.J. Shulte & Co.
After the commercial success of Atlantis, the Antediluvian World and Ragnarok, which guaranteed him an income for the rest of his life, Ignatius Donnelly published The Great Cryptogram, his attempt to prove that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare's plays. This turgid 1000 page volume sunk like stone. Following a lecture tour of Britain, and an unsuccessful third senatorial campaign, Donnelly turned to fiction. In 1889, Donnelly wrote Cæser's Column, a remarkably prescient utopian science fiction novel.
Donnelly was attempting to cash in on the success of Edward Bellamys' Looking Backwards, published in 1888, which had been a smash best-seller (300,000 copies in the first two years). Donnelly published the book in 1890 under a pseudonym--an attempt to create intrigue, which, as it turns out, was unnecessary. Cæser's Column hit paydirt; and sold sixty thousand copies in the first year alone, mostly by word of mouth.
This book could be subtitled Two Weddings and an Apocalypse. Like Jack London's The Iron Heel, Cæser's Column is a cautionary tale set in the distant Twentieth Century. The year is 1988--ironically, only a few years before 'the end of history' according to one theory. Two trivial Victorian romantic arcs are grafted onto a deadly serious novel of ideas. Donnelly scores some direct hits: he predicts globalization, the triumph of Capitalism, air travel and air warfare, biological and chemical weapons, medical advances, the erosion of American democracy, liberal theology, and perhaps most remarkably, the Internet. His misses include the continued use of horses for urban transportation and his projection of the status of women and labor to minima (which nonetheless serve as useful plot devices).
Somewhat confusing to contemporary sensibilities is his treatment of Jews, which superficially may appear anti-Semitic. However, this is misleading. Donnelly goes out of his way to include both heroes and villians who are identified as Jewish. His depiction of Jews as part of the late 20th Century ruling class was meant as an ironic touch, since at the time the book was written they were an oppressed minority. This would be similar to a contemporary science fiction novel postulating a lesbian President in the year 2090.
The midsection of the novel is burdened with way too much exposition for modern tastes (not to mention the two maudlin romantic subplots). However, the pace picks up with the spectacular destruction of the corrupt society he has constructed. One of his heroes ends up committing tragic and brutal acts of revenge; the other ends up literally writing the epitaph for modern civilization. Both are recognizably, in hindsight, true inhabitants of the 20th Century.
Donnelly, in a departure from the genre, describes both a dystopia and a utopia in the same work. In a bucolic coda to the savage body of the novel, he outlines his ideal society, based on universal suffrage and education, a non-metal based currency, and the strict prohibition of compound interest. Like his hypothetical exiles from Ragnarok and Atlantis, the protagonists end up creating a redoubt from which civilization can be renewed.
--J.B. Hare, May 1, 2002